The last time Washington hosted a Stanley Cup final contest was June 16, 1998, a night on which the Detroit Red Wings ended the Caps’ dream and skated the Stanley Cup around the (then) MCI Center ice. On this night, in Game 3 of the final, the Caps beat the Vegas Golden Knights, 3-1, to take a 2-1 lead in Games in the Stanley Cup final.
The teams traded chances, but pucks could not find their way into the back of the net. Alex Ovechkin had a glorious chance on an Evgeny Kuznetsov feed on a 2-on-1, but goalie Marc-Andre Fleury got across the crease in time to get his left arm on the puck and redirect it over the net. Chandler Stephenson had a goal washed out on a goalie interference penalty taken by Devante Smith-Pelly, who knocked Fleury over as the shot was sailing by. At the other end, Vegas hit the post behind goalie Braden Holtby twice, both shots ricocheting out. At the end of 20 minutes, though, there were zeroes on either side of the scoreboard.
Odd numbers… The Golden Knights had 15 of their shots blocked…the Caps won 13 of 18 draws (72.2 percent)…Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov logged more than eight minutes in ice time apiece (8:58 and 8:28, respectively)…this is the third Stanley Cup final game played on home ice by the Caps; they have yet to score a first period goal.
It took the Caps just 70 seconds to break the scoreless tie. It was the product of relentless effort by the Caps, starting with John Carlson stopping the puck in the offensive zone just inside the Vegas blue line. He nudged the puck down to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who circled out and around the right wing circle before wristing a shot from the high slot. John Carlson got his stick on it to redirect the puck, but Fleury kicked it out to his left. Tom Wilson got to the loose puck in the corner and snapped it to the front of the net. The puck caromed out to the slot, where Kuznetsov was filling back in, but his shot was muffled in front. The puck pinballed out to Fleury’s right where Alex Ovechkin was dueling with Brayden McNabb. Ovechkin dove over McNabb to get his stick on the puck and lifted a backhand while falling that sailed into the open side of the net, giving the Caps the 1-0 lead.
The Caps doubled their lead in the 13th minute. It started with little things. Jay Beagle fought David Perron off the puck at the left wing wall. T.J. Oshie stopped the loose puck with his skate, and then he dove out to poke it along before Shea Theodore could get to it. Jay Beagle picked it up in the neutral zone and fed Kuznetsov on his right. Kuznetsov skated into the offensive zone, Beagle filling in the middle, and Dmitry Orlov joining in to make it a 3-on-1. Kuznetsov looked pass, but he snapped a shot that snuck between Fleury’s right arm and his body and into the far side of the net to make it 2-0, 12:50 into the period.
There is keeping your foot on the gas, there is playing prevent defense, and there is whatever that was that Braden Holtby was doing early in the final period. Playing the puck behind his own net, he held it on his backhand looking for an escape route. Of all available to him, he dialed up “pass it through the middle.” Bad choice. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare got his stick on the attempted clear and slowed it down enough for Tomas Nosek to jump in and fire it into the vacated net to make it 2-1 just 3:29 into the period.
Ten minutes later, the Caps restored the two-goal lead. Shea Theodore, who had a brutal game for the Golden Knights, had the puck in his own end and was backing off a forecheck by Jay Beagle into the corner to the left of Fleury. He lost control of the puck, and his backward momentum kept him from gathering it back. Beagle’s forward momentum carried him to the loose puck, and from the corner he backhanded a pass into the middle where Devante Smith-Pelly was filling in. Smith-Pelly took the puck in stride and skated in deep. He opened the blade of his stick and wristed a shot over Fleury’s glove, and the Caps had a 3-1 lead 13:53 into the period.
The Caps locked things up after that, denying Vegas many opportunities, even after the Golden Knights pulled Fleury with almost three minutes left in regulation. The Caps skated off with the 3-1 lead, taking a 2-1 lead in games.
-- June 2, 2018… the first Stanley Cup finals win for the Washington Capitals on home ice, 20 years to the day since they lost their first ever Stanley Cup playoff game played at home in June, a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in Game 5 of their series. The Caps went on to win that series in the next game to send them to their first Stanley Cup final.
-- Alex Ovechkin’s goal was his 14th of this postseason, tying the franchise record for goals in a single postseason (John Druce set the record in 1990). He is now just one goal behind the most scored in a single postseason in the post-2005-2006 era. Sidney Crosby had 15 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009.
-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had a goal and an assist to give him points in 12 of his last 13 postseason games. The only one in that stretch in which he did not was in Game 2 of this series, when he skated just 4:26 before leaving with an injury.
-- Jay Beagle had a pair of assists, his second multi-point game of this postseason (two assists in the series-clinching game against Columbus in the first round) and third of his career.
-- Doing the dirty work… the Caps had 38 credited hits to 31 for Vegas, 26 blocked shots (Vegas had only 22 shots on goal), and won 39 of 62 faceoffs (62.9 percent).
-- Sixteen of 18 skaters were credited with hits (Dmitry Orlov and Nicklas Backstrom were not). No Capital was under 50 percent on draws (Tom Wilson split the two faceoffs he took).
-- Devante Smith-Pelly’s goal was his fifth of this postseason, tying his career high (set in 2014 with Anaheim). His six points in this postseason are a career high.
-- John Carlson led the team with 13 shot attempts (six on goal, also a team high).
-- The Caps held the Golden Knights without a power play goal for the first time in this series, but holding them to two power plays had something to do with that, too. It was the sixth time in seven games that the Caps faced two or fewer opponent power plays.
-- A light workload has not been a friend to Braden Holtby in his postseason career. Coming into this game, he had a win-loss record of 18-20 in the playoffs when facing fewer than 30 shots (24-17 when facing at least 30 shots). He won facing only 22 shots in this game.
In the end…
The Caps are half-way home. The important part of that sentence is “half-way.” There is much work yet to do, and Vegas certainly will be playing with more desperation trying to win back home-ice advantage on Monday night. But one cannot help but get the feeling that the Caps are starting to impose their will on this series. Theirs was the more effective forecheck in Games 2 and 3. Theirs was the more balanced and effective offense; their special teams have been just a bit more special.
The cloud that hangs over the Caps now is another injury. Brooks Orpik sat out the last 7:35 of the game, his last shift lasting only eight seconds. He was the victim of a heavy hit by James Neal earlier in the game that left him dazed. The margins at this level of play are so thin that his absence, even as a third-pair defenseman, could be significant. But the Caps have two days to sort this out before they try to take a stranglehold on the series in two days.